As a first year, I live in halls. As a first year, I complain about the food. And, as a first year, I panic when I think about next year, when I will no longer live in halls and thus will have to grocery shop, cook and do dishes (adulthood is a scam, I tell you).
Industrial food preparation still mystifies me. I worked in a cafe last summer and saw firsthand how difficult it is to anticipate people’s tastes. We served brunch on weekends, with our speciality being eggs benedict. Some days we would have to run down to the shop to get more eggs, other days we would have dozens left over.
It is an overwhelming task to cater to a thousand different dietary requirements and preferences, to make food reasonably healthy but still edible in big batches, to order and to serve amounts that will satiate people but not lead to massive food waste. Chefs have to prepare options that are vegetarian, vegan and gluten free, as well as taking into consideration a whole host of allergies. Repetition is absolutely necessary, and student distaste is inevitable.
Catering in St Andrews differs from hall to hall and from year to year, and differs even more from meal plans at other universities. I live in Sallies, where we get breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays and breakfast and lunch on weekends. The food, in general, is nothing to write home about and is occasionally quite ambiguous – I generally opt for the vegetarian option, and if it’s not labelled, I may have no idea what I’m eating. Nevertheless, we are guaranteed three hot meals a day without having to put any eff ort into preparation or cleanup, and I know that I will miss that when I move out.
First year Ranna Mehr is catered in David Russell Apartments, which seems to be known for having the best food of the St Andrews halls. Often the food served seems rather similar from hall to hall – she says “I like how there’s an option of just chicken or salmon some nights which makes for a simpler option, but for special diets such as vegetarians and dairy free options, it’s quite interesting as I have no idea what they’re actually serving me… soup can get a little experimental.”
In DRA, students get breakfast and dinner from Monday to Friday and breakfast and lunch on weekends. Ms Mehr continues, “I understand why we don’t get lunch – we’re so far away and most people probably won’t walk back – but during revision week and exams it can be really annoying because walking into town for lunch is a hassle”
Some students avoid this all together by opting not to be catered. First year Caroline Ip lives in Agnes Blackadder Hall, and is self-catered. “I chose to be self-catered because it gives me more i n d e p e n d e n c e and means I can cook what I want when I want,” she says. That flexibility is certainly an upside to students deeply entrenched in extracurriculars who may not be able to make it back to halls within the narrow dining hours.
Halls try out different initiatives to mix things up or to cut back on waste – in my hall, we had a brief, ill-fated attempt to install ‘Trayless Tuesdays’ to reduce food waste. On Tuesdays, we were not given trays to carry our food. Rather than cut down on how much food people took though, this just made it difficult to carry a salad bowl plus a plate and maybe dessert into the dining hall, stop to pick up cutlery, and make it to the table without facing some sort of mishap. Different halls seem to have different policies on a number of fronts, including how many pieces of fruit students can take.
Caitlin Duffy has lived in Sallies for three years, and has noticed a defi nite upgrade in the quality of food over her time here. “There is a lot more variety and far fewer potatoes. The chefs have a limited budget but even over three years the options for vegetarians have expanded massively,” she says. There have also been some changes in protocol: “We’ve managed to extend breakfast;they’re much less strict on who gets the vegetarian meals; they’re much more strict about the sandwich bar; they’re much more strict about gett ing seconds; they’re much less strict about us taking more than one piece of fruit (because we argued that they’re denying us of our fi ve a day); there’s a lot more variety in the salad bar and with the dressings,” says Ms Duff y.
Gabby Wolf lived in DRA for her first year, and has been living in Gannochy (catered by Sallies) for the past two years. “Sallies has better catering, but DRA had a better salad bar,” she says, adding that “the Sallies dining hall is preferable” – we do have stained glass windows.
When I talk to my friends from high school about their meal plans, the differences are immediately apparent. Katie O’Neill, studying at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, had to get a mandatory meal plan because she was staying in University residence. Her meal plan gives her $13.50 (£7.50) a day to spend in residence cafeterias, and $5 (£2.78) a day in “flex dollars”, which can be spent at most of the third-party food suppliers on campus, including Starbucks, The Pita Pit, Dominos, Booster Juice, and the all-important Tim Hortons. In addition to this, each residence cafeteria offers different food, and students are not limited to the cafeteria of the building in which they live.
Ms O’Neill generally gets lunch and dinner on her meal plan, but she says many students opt for three meals a day and top up their card throughout the year. Ms O’Neill is a vegan, but where the vegan options in St Andrews seem to frequently be zucchini in tomato sauce (somehow named something different at every meal?), she lists her options as including burritos, teriyaki tofu, salads, southwest bowls and stir fries.
When asked if she could change anything about her meal plan, Ms O’Neill commented that she would like “more smoothies.” Beverage options in our St Andrean halls include water, juice, tea and what they market to us as coffee (it can’t be coffee; coffee does not taste like that). Smoothies would be a luxury beyond our wildest dreams.
Meal plans in North America generally seem far more varied and comprehensive than ours, but they are also far more expensive. The difference between being catered and self-catered here in St Andrews is about £1,684, where a meal plan at UBC, for example, costs $5,493 (£3,063).
Vancouver is likely pricier than universities in smaller centres, but that is nearly double what we pay for food. That would seem to raise a question: St Andrews is home to more than its fair share of affluence, so should there be the option to receive better quality catering? This is a small university, so perhaps we simply don’t have the resources or the interest to expand the meal plan system. Even so, being able to spend meal plan credit on coffee (actual coffee) sounds pretty good.
The concept of being able to eat at the cafeterias in other residences has some appeal as well. Such a setup would be less impactful for those of us in town, I’m sure, but people living at DRA would be able to duck into Sallies or McIntosh for lunch instead of buying meal deals every day. This would undoubtedly complicate the system far more, as catering teams would never know how many people they would be serving, but somehow, other universities pull it off.
From what I have heard, there have only been improvements in the catering system, so hopefully it will continue on this uphill trajectory. Catering teams are certainly responsive to feedback – in my hall, we have a pinboard for requests and comments, and they are responded to quickly and generally positively.
As students, we like to gripe about hall food. It can be repetitive, confusing or just not very appetising. Nevertheless, it allows us not to think about food, a luxury we surely take for granted. We simply show up, put food on a plate and stick our dishes on a rack when we’re finished with them. The preparation and cleanup is not our concern, and this is probably the last time in our lives we will be able to say that.
Supplying up to 19 meals each week for potentially hundreds of students with diff erent tastes and diets is an extraordinarily difficult task, so for all of the complaining we do, we also have to be grateful for the fact that we have food readily available to us at least twice a day. Being catered allows us to postpone the cold shock of adulthood, and for that, I am thankful.